Depending on whom you asked, Syphilis, a bacterial infection, that ravaged the world for four centuries, was variously known as the French, Italian, Spanish or Polish disease. Its association with the French among Italians, is connected to its outbreak in 15th Century Naples, following an invasion of the city by the French during the Italian War that raged between 1494 and 1498.
In any case, it did not matter what you called the disease. Until Alexander Fleming, discovered penicillin, the first effective antibiotic against the disease in 1928, Syphilis unsparingly killed royals, the clergy and commoners. Just over 500 years later, sections of the world are responding to a pandemic in pretty much the same way their medieval descendants did to Syphilis.
The moral of the story is that in the face of a common threat, pontificating and denial hardly change reality. This week, the United Kingdom temporarily paused the entry into its territory of travellers from Burundi and Rwanda. The decision followed the tracing of a few cases of a new variant of the coronavirus to travellers from those countries.
Until recently, Burundi was one of those countries in East Africa that refused to acknowledge Covid-19 as a public health emergency. From about last May, Burundi and Tanzania vanished off the radar of daily global Covid-19 updates. As the count for Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda crossed 150,000 cumulative cases this week, Tanzania’s tally remained frozen at the 509 cases last reported before the country unilaterally withdrew and declared Covid-19 a non-issue.
That has not stopped the pandemic from ravaging the region. Burundi has since last November required visitors to undergo a 14-day quarantine. Rwanda is back into a lockdown in Kigali while Kenya and Uganda are flip-flopping between options. Uganda is still struggling with what to do with learners that have been out of school for a year now.
The dissimilar approaches to the pandemic reflect the discordance of politics at a time when the region should have been more converged on how to minimise the spread of the pandemic and its impacts.
Lessons from history teach us that disease respects no boundaries, class or creed. A vaccine for polio went into use in 1955. As a result of its widespread use, many countries have not seen the disease in their territory since the turn of the eighties. Yet all it takes for a resurgence of the disease, is for one infected traveller to enter a previously sanitised territory.
Vaccines against Covid-19 are now available. They offer humanity the greatest hope against a common enemy. Even with the pressures on manufacturing facilities, there are active attempts the vaccine becomes available universally.
However, having a vaccine is only part of the solution. Without a coordinated effort in a region of the world, with interconnected communities and porous borders, the benefits of vaccination will be limited in the absence of a coherent and convergent regional strategy.
Burundi’s quarantine measures are a step in the right direction. On the other hand, Tanzanian President John Pombe Magufuli’s stance about Covid-19 and vaccines against it is unfortunate. If Tanzania opts out of the global vaccination campaign, it risks becoming a reservoir of the virus. That potentially undermines the efforts at vaccination by her neighbours.